The Chennai woman who runs a Hindu crematorium

Praveen Soloman Image copyright NATHAN G
Image caption For a long time women were kept out of Hindu cremation grounds

Traditionally, Hindu women do not visit a crematorium for the final rituals of their loved ones. But in the southern Indian city of Chennai, a 34-year-old woman has been managing one of the city's oldest and busiest cremation grounds. Praveena Soloman discusses her unusual career choice with the BBC's Geeta Pandey.

It's mid morning and the Valankadu crematorium in the Anna Nagar district is a hive of activity. Ms Soloman, the administrator, is a picture of efficiency as she checks the arrangements one last time before the next body arrives.

Minutes before noon, a sombre funeral procession reaches the crematorium. A man of 88 from a nearby area has died and his family has brought his body to perform his last rites.

At the gates, the procession is met by N Manikandan who ushers the mourners in, hitting a brass plate with a gong and blowing a conch shell to announce their arrival.

Image copyright NATHAN G
Image caption Ms Soloman supervises the last rites of a deceased man

Ms Soloman steps out of her office to meet them, the procession is led up a flight of steps to a hall where the wooden pyre is laid on the floor.

As a priest chants mantras, a male relative of the deceased performs the last rites before the body is taken up to be burned in a gas-fired furnace.

It will take nearly two hours for the body to completely burn, Ms Soloman tells the family, and goes back to her office to complete the paperwork for them.

"Tamil Nadu has a high literacy rate, 90% women here are literate, but still there are lots of limitations and barriers on them," she tells me.

Image copyright NATHAN G
Image caption Rituals are performed before the body is placed on a trolley and tipped into the furnace

As the body is consigned to flames and we sit talking, Mr Manikandan begins to sing the Shivapuranam, a haunting melody invoking the Hindu god Shiva, "informing him that this mortal will be arriving at his feet soon".

A crematorium is not really a happy place and although women are not expressly banned from attending, they have always been discouraged from being present.

The explanation often has been that it is for their own wellbeing - since women are "softer and weaker" and may be traumatised by the death rituals.

So when Ms Soloman, a mother of two and English literature graduate from Madras University, took up the job two-and-a-half years ago, it didn't go down well with many.

Image copyright NATHAN G
Image caption Priest Irushankar Narayanan says he is "very proud" of Ms Soloman

"Not everyone was okay with a woman working here. Some teased us, some passed filthy remarks. Some even questioned what type of a woman would come and work here. They said we must be bad people and that was very hurtful," she told the BBC.

Then there were people who were dependent on the cremation ground for their living and thought that they would lose their jobs.

"So they threatened to throw acid on my face," she says.

The first three months were the toughest, when even a tiny sound would make her jump.

"But slowly they realised that we were not there to take away their jobs and things have changed."

Image copyright NATHAN G
Image caption The procession is led by a man beating a brass plate with a gong and blowing a conch shell

The opportunity had come her way when the Indian Community Welfare Organisation, the NGO she had been working with for 12 years, won the contract to run the 120-year-old Valankadu crematorium.

Long neglected, the cremation ground had become a dumping ground for rubbish - and groups of men assembled there every night to drink.

"We thought we would make it a safe place for women and girls to come and spend the last moments with their loved ones. We wanted to create a calm and healing place," says ICWO chief AJ Hariharan.

"So we asked all our senior women staff who would like to take up the challenge. Only two women volunteered and Ms Soloman became the first to be appointed to run a crematorium in Chennai."

And she hit the ground running - on her first day at work, she supervised seven cremations.

"It was overwhelming," she says. "Every time there was a cremation, I would also cry with the mourners. It took me a lot of time to overcome that, to not cry when I saw other people crying."

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Image caption Ms Soloman is happy that she is no longer the only woman in the crematorium

Since taking over, Ms Soloman has worked hard to secure the place - building a boundary wall around the 4.5-acre grounds and installing security cameras, ensuring the place is well lit up at night. It also now has clean toilets, rubbish bins, and brightly coloured benches and dozens of trees and pot plants have been brought in to make the area more attractive.

"Now people say it looks like a park," she says, visibly pleased.

Her unusual career choice did surprise her family but, she says, they were very supportive.

"When I told my husband, his first question was, 'Can you do it?' He said managing a crematorium was not easy, it's a male dominated space. I told him I'll give it a try and if I don't succeed, I'll look at plan B. He agreed."

Thankfully the need for that did not arise.

And for her effort, she has found acceptance. Even praise.

Priest Irushankar Narayanan says he is "very proud" of Ms Soloman. "She is doing a wonderful job. Before she came, the toilets were filthy. Now they are so clean you can eat a meal there."

The visitors, too, appreciate her presence. Janasi Ramachandran Krishnamachari, who is here for her father's cremation, says she wanted to accompany him in his last moments and describes Ms Soloman's presence as "a good trend".

"And a trend-setter," says Divya Raju, who followed in Ms Soloman's footsteps and has been working at the crematorium for the past months.

Image copyright NATHAN G
Image caption Divya Raju considers Ms Soloman her role model

Ms Soloman says her stint at the crematorium has been a steep learning curve and the biggest lessons were during last November's Chennai floods.

As large parts of the city went down under flood waters, and most of Chennai's 140 cremations grounds became inaccessible, she ensured the fires kept burning at Velankadu.

"Normally, we get five to seven bodies daily. During the floods it was double that. We took up the challenge and thought we must support and help people and do our duty. We cremated 246 bodies in November alone."

Cremations are free and Ms Soloman's team receives 750 rupees from the civic authorities for each body they deal with.

As we are wrapping up our interview, one of her colleagues brings her an urn with the ashes of the deceased.

It's a sombre moment as she hands over the urn to the family.

As we bid farewell, I ask her what she thinks of death.

"There's nothing after death, that's what I understand," she says. "So be happy, enjoy what you're doing and do something good while you're alive."